DAYS OF LOSS – Perseverance Beyond a Frail Existence
Tens of thousands of bands via for your attention daily- so who can stand out from the crowd? A band like Austria’s Days of Loss – choosing to capture their death/thrash style with strong tones and production values that haven’t been heard ad nausea while focusing on effective melodies throughout.
My first exposure to the band would be through their new (and second) album Our Frail Existence, and quickly thereafter I sought out rhythm guitarist Ken Straetman on Facebook. We engaged in a few conversations in the early morning hours about a host of music and non-music related topics, and I felt compelled to give the band more of a platform through this interview to learn about the music, their tastes, their philosophy, and even some of their outside interests.
Fresh off working out the recording of the first video off their new album (for the track "Through Empty Eyes", expect it to hit the social media/ YouTube airwaves soon), I grabbed Ken through a Skype call and I hope you’ll appreciate his great sensibility and love for the genre – and if you haven’t picked up the new Days of Loss album… what are you waiting for?
Can you tell us a little bit about your life growing up, your first memories surrounding music and what motivated you to go from a fan to picking an instrument and eventually play in the hard rock/ metal genre?
"My first contact with music was through my parents actually. My father was quite into soul music and such, so I came in contact quite early with music. I didn’t have the idea to play music for myself- but then when I was in school a classmate of mine asked me if I wanted to go to a Metallica concert when I was about 12. I was so impressed by the vibe and by the audience, the band could captivate the audience like they did and brought over the energy. I went back to the music store the next day and bought the back catalog of Metallica without thinking about it. So I started getting more into the music, I started to investigate the roots of metal and where Metallica took influence from, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath. Then some friends of mine picked up the guitar so I tried to fool around with it a bit. From the one thing came another and then I was fully interested in playing the guitar, learning Metallica songs."
Did you start learning the guitar from ear or did you also seek out some training to get better at the instrument? Do you remember some of the struggles/ learning curves you conquered?
"A friend of mine played pretty well and he taught me a lot of stuff, some licks and how to finger chords. Then I started to try and play with the records, sometimes I would get tablature to play along with the records and eventually I got better by ear. The first tries of learning chords- the basics- exchanging from one chord to the next was a bit of a struggle. Being a musician in general it’s all about perseverance in the beginning- just don’t give up. Keep on trying and eventually it starts to work. It starts getting more fun."
You played in the symphonic/ gothic metal band Manic Movement from 1997-2000- what are your memories surrounding this group? Can you tell us about the tour you did with Moonspell & Kreator, I would imagine this was an early highlight in your musical career?
"Yes, it actually was. I met the guys through a guitar player friend of mine. Back in the day Manic Movement were looking for a guitar player and they called him, he was already settling down and by coincidence I was at his place we were watching a movie and he was talking to Oliver (Wittenberg) the drummer of the band on the phone. He told them about me, and I talked to him on the phone. I came to the audition and it worked out very fine. We actually did a few shows, started demoing stuff- because when I joined them they had a different singer, more like power metal, heavy rock I would say. They started to change the concept, and I enjoyed that process a lot. We got a new singer and we started demoing all our songs that we were writing at the moment. We played quite a big festival in Belgium that had 15,000-20,000 people there- everybody was asking when and where they could get our record. We didn’t have a record label yet, we intensified our search right then to get a record deal. We were approached by several labels like Roadrunner, and we ended up with a small Dutch label (Suburban Records) run by a guy who ended up doing A&R for Century Media in the Benelux area. They had a lot of faith and confidence in us, they gave us a good budget for recording the CD- and then we got to go on tour. Katatonia dropped off the Moonspell tour, and they asked us if we would be interested in joining them on tour with Witchery. It was an honor for us to do this- we were quite a young band and inexperienced, we were able to go on tour with veterans like Moonspell and Kreator which we ended up learning a lot from."
What other bands did you perform in following your departure from Manic Movement before joining the melodic death/thrash act Days of Loss a couple of years ago?
"Actually that is a fast answer- none! I moved to Austria after a one year break from Manic Movement, I tried out with a few bands but I didn’t find anything where the chemistry would be right for me personally. It either wasn’t the music I wanted to play or I didn’t feel a connection. So I took quite a few years off until I found the guys from Days of Loss to pick up the guitar again."
The new album Our Frail Existence is a potent display of the power of melodic death/thrash with catchy hooks and heaviness, plus attention to detail in terms of songwriting that many acts just do not look into these days. How did the songwriting and recording process go for the album, do you have any particular favorites or stories to tell?
"The songwriting is also pretty easy, Alex (Schmid-guitarist) comes up with all the stuff. Days of Loss is his baby because of this, when he comes to the rehearsal room with a song, there’s really not that much to add to it. I have the same opinion, I am in awe because the songs are ready- there may be some small arrangement idea changes, but 95% of the song is already there. I think it’s a good formula to leave it like that, he writes complete songs, we are in a luxurious position for him to just show us the songs and then add our personal notes. The way you play it can be different because he is a lead guitar player and I am more of the rhythm guitar player- he keeps that in mind when writing. He has a good mind for 3-D or 4-D vision for music. Lots of the songs were already written when I joined the band, on the next songwriting sessions we will cooperate a bit more. As the saying goes, don’t change a winning team or winning formula! I want to see what he comes up with and add our personal note to it.
The recording is a collaboration. We know our strengths and weaknesses and try to put each part to our strengths. We are not afraid to keep things basic and we are not afraid to experiment sometimes. It’s better to keep things simple and let the melody take over the song. You don’t have to push in 4-5 lead riffs to make things more complicated, the formula is to combine melody and a good carrying basic rhythm to the songs. We don’t try to over fill the song with technical mambo jambo- keep things essential."
Now did you have the record deal in place with Noisehead Records before recording the album or was it case of recording the album first and then seeking out a deal?
"It was actually the second one. We were planning on recording with Norbert Leitner in Udio Media Studios in Vienna, Austria anyway- so we just went ahead and did some pre-production demos. We decided we wanted to record the album as (good) as we can, and then go shopping with the product to a record label. Eventually Noisehead became the best possible partner for us. We feel they have the same passion for the music as we do, and we have the right feelings that they will treat our music with the same type of dedication as we would. That was the main driver to go with them actually."
Even though you didn’t appear on Days of Loss’ debut album "Life Is Decay", where do you see the major differences in the albums if you had to compare them?
"I think it’s a natural evolution. I can feel the songs entered another level, sounds are technically better. "Life Is Decay"- I don’t know if you could say it was a bit on the safe side, the typical dry Mesa Boogie sound, let’s get it very heavy so all the people will say they like it. From a songwriting point of view Alex matured a big deal from this album. Since I’ve joined the band, the chemistry inside the band started developing more positively, and that influences the music. A big difference in the sound of the record from my part was we didn’t take compromises. We knew how we wanted the record to sound, we don’t want to reinvent the wheel all the time, you can try to innovate and then kill the music with it if you aren’t careful. It was hard to describe the sound to the producer- we didn’t want a typical In Flames sound or Metallica sound- we wanted the sound that fits the best to the music. He came to a rehearsal and we played him the songs, he got the same vibe as we did. It was a mixture of a lot of styles and he had a clear image of what he wanted to do with us sound-wise. We recorded the record, and we experimented with sounds, amps, settings with a bit more gain, a bit less gain, and different drum sounds and ways of recording. The sounds just came together by itself, he had a good feeling about it not being ordinary. In the mixing and mastering procedure we didn’t take the first take all the time- we took our time to make sure the songs were great. We saw the sound come together and morphed with the music, the results became really worth hearing."
How would you describe the group in terms of a live performance- and what have been some of your favorite live memories with Days of Loss to date?
"Last year for example we played on a big festival in Austria, which is actually the biggest festival for our country. It’s on a river divided into two, the Danube which is quite a famous river. It’s divided on the city limits of Vienna, the middle part was left as an island. Every year in June this festival is held and there are all kinds of music styles, FM-rock, dance music, techno- and a smaller stage which is called ‘Metalheads against Racism’ which is a good cause. We actually got notified a couple of days before the festival that a bass player from another band that was supposed to play the festival broke his arm and they couldn’t play- so we got asked to fill in for them and that was a really nice experience. Also, just before I joined the band I was helping them out as a guitar tech and stage manager, because I befriended them. They played two shows with Heaven Shall Burn, who recorded their DVD in Vienna, so they got to play back to back shows with them and that was a nice experience."
Do you place a lot of importance on band chemistry and personalities factoring into the advancement of Days of Loss? Are there certain duties and responsibilities you delegate to each member based on their strengths and skill sets?
"Yes, I think that is very important. Chemistry is one of the main things which improves the sound of Days of Loss. Now we are a bunch of friends playing music and enjoying it and doing it because we like it. That’s a very important factor- it feels a hell of a lot better to have it and you are more comfortable on stage pulling in the audience to you. If you are struggling with each other you will notice that on the stage and the audience will not connect as well with you. As far as delegating the tasks go, it’s very important for the right person to do the right things. We split up things- Alex is the main guy when it comes to the music, I am more taking care of the business side because I am used to it I guess. Everybody has his small assignment to do and I think if everybody does their job things roll smoother."
We had a previous conversation on Facebook regarding North American metal bands versus European metal bands in terms of support and appreciation. Where do you view the similarities and differences between the two territories, and where do your preferences lie?
"In metal I can only speak for my personal conception of course, it’s pretty much like normal life. The grass is always greener on the other side. If a band comes from America to play in Europe, then they must be good- otherwise they wouldn’t make that step. There is lot more respect upfront and you get a lot more credit if you come overseas. That also counts for metal bands inside Europe- if a metal band comes from Germany or Sweden or England, they get a much easier access to the public and audience. Sometimes it’s hard in Austria to get your foot in the door to convince the crowd that even though you are from Austria that you can compete with bands on an international level and we can keep up with the American and European bands. We had our album release show for "Our Frail Existence" last week and we had a very good response. Not sold out but nearly sold out venue, where international bands have played like Kataklysm. That was a very good thing to see, that the response to our shows is on par with international shows. For me personally I don’t really care a lot where a band comes from. I know great Austrian bands, American bands, Swedish bands- I don’t really care as long as their music can reach my heart and my soul, my body it gets me moving. They can come from Israel, Iran, Bangladesh- it’s the music that counts to me."
I’ve studied the metal scene for well over 30 years and I just think a lot of the European bands inject a level of melody and musicality into their craft, even when they are on the extreme side, when American bands focus more on the aggression aspect.
"Yeah, I have heard that before from Negral of Behemoth, he has said something similar not too long ago. Maybe it’s a part of history- in Austria we have some great classical musicians. People grow up with the melodies, the melancholy, the drama in the music. If you want to put drama in your music you have to do it through melody. That’s a different way of looking it. The European bands want a different expression for their music. It’s hard to generalize it, there is a bit of both in every continent. Some European bands are looking for a lot of aggression through their music too."
What are your top 5 albums of all time that you treasure- either in metal or non-metal- and what was the best concert you took in as a fan through the years?
"Wow, that’s a hard one. I have been listening to metal since I was 12 and I am 36 now so that is 24 years of consumption. A very memorable concert for me is the Monsters of Rock festival in Donnington, 1995 and 1996. 1995 the billing was so great, it was very mainstream with Metallica, Slayer, Machine Head, Skid Row, White Zombie- it was very neat. The year after that I can remember Sepultura playing, unfortunately Dana the step-son of Max Cavalera had died the day before so he had to travel back home. Sepultura stayed on playing the show as a trio with Andreas Kisser singing and they got help from all the other bands- guys from Biohazard were singing, Fear Factory, and that was like the main thing I have always felt about metal- the loyalty to one another, being there for each other. The guys didn’t want to let their fans down even though personal tragedy struck at the time, they improvised and a lot of people were helping out of the blue. Everyone in the audience loved it, all the guys went on stage singing Sepultura songs that was memorable.
The top 5 albums, I am not going to rank them because that is simply not possible I would say. I really like everything that Testament has ever made, a very memorable one for me is "The Gathering". "True Believer" is one of my all-time favorite songs, there are so many dynamic elements, it goes from hard to very sensitive in some parts, I really like that. At the time we were recording "Thousand Sufferings" with Manic Movement for me it was an incredible wall of sound and still being very precise and clear. The songwriting is dynamic and versatile, I was really impressed by that album when that came out. Slayer- "Reign in Blood", that has made an all-time impression. I still listen to it on a daily basis, it’s on in the car somewhere. What else? Let me think… the first The Haunted album. You can see the direction I am going in, I come from a thrash metal background. In Flames- something early but not too early, "Whoracle" or "Colony" maybe. One of those two would be in there… the last one. Maybe an Annihilator album. If I see Jeff Waters on a stage that makes my day- makes my year actually. I saw them a couple of month ago two times and they are incredible live. His whole new band, Dave Padden has been in Annihilator now for 10 years which is incredible. I really like what they do, I like the music because it’s thrash metal with aggression and this happy factor. That was the best concert I saw in 2013. Two hours of full on Annihilator, tight as can be with his funny faces running around the stage. I played on a bill with his band and Overkill on a show in 2000, I got to talk with him for half an hour and he is one of the nicest guys ever. So I would say "Never, Neverland" would be the fifth album on my all-time list."
How do you view the metal scene in 2014? Are there times that other local bands in your area ask you for tips and advice on how to navigate the business side of things- and if so what sorts of advice or things do you talk to them about?
"Well, Matt the problem that I had is I spent a lot of time outside of this business. I wasn’t involved in playing music, I was still listening to it- but the business side of things changed so much over the last ten years that sometimes I have to go look for advice myself. I have managed to catch up, it happens now and then that bands come up to us and ask questions about how we would approach things, sometimes sound-wise they ask about equipment that we use or how we do settings. I am happy to give advice to the guys, if they want to accept it- we also got lots of advice from playing with the bigger bands and taking in all of what they do. When we were on tour with Kreator back in the Manic Movement days, at that time Tommy ‘the Baron’ from Coroner was playing guitar for them- and I hung on his lips for evenings at a time. He had so many great stories to tell and advice to give it would have been a major mistake not to listen. They have done so many tours and gigs- it happens.
To answer the bigger question about how I see the metal scene in 2014. It has really changed a lot. It’s quite an interesting thing to do, leave the music business in 2002 and come back in 2009-10 and absorb the cultural shock that you get. Now my body knows how the music business works today, of course the internet plays a huge part in things. On the one side it’s easier to distribute your music, on the other side it’s easier for other people to distribute your music (laughs). That is the other side of the coin, I think we are battling through it. We are doing our best to get our music across to people and just make advantages out of the disadvantages out of the business today. It’s hard but we try to keep our head up."
Does this place more importance on live shows and merchandise to keep the band’s presence up more so than ever?
"Yes, I think it’s always been a complete package. The focus is you have to stick out in one or the other way. What we tried to do on our release show was just stick our head out in the crowd a bit more than some of the other Austrian bands or international bands. We put on extra lights, more of a stage show so that it wouldn’t be like your everyday concert. I think that really reaches the people in a good way, we got a lot of positive comments on there. This can only be for the people that are already at your concerts though. The way to get them there, be present on the internet, get your music distributed all over the world. Promote your music on social media yourself, put it on all the platforms so you have it in the quality you meant for people to hear it. We are gradually making the music available to the people. We want people to like our music. You have to put a lot of money in front of things yourself, we are happy about all the responses, good reviews, good feedback from people that have bought the CD. We get feedback from Mexico, Brazil, Bangladesh, Russia, it’s very nice to see your music is touching people everywhere- around the corner as well as around the globe. That is a big advantage of the scene right now."
Is it tough to balance your music endeavors with having a day job and a personal/ social life?
"Yes, sometimes it is- especially when you are recording or planning a tour or focusing on something. You really have to make compromises. I have a job where I can assign my workload pretty much myself so that helps a lot- you can plan in front for a few gigs and tours, recordings, so I can plan it in a correct way. For other members of the band it is harder- our drummer Max Fingernagel is a doctor for example at a hospital, so for him it’s not so easy to plan upfront. They have weekend shifts so that’s not so easy, but we try to manage it."
Tell us about your interest in American football- where and when did it start, who some of your favorite teams are and how it was to take in a football game this past season in the United States?
"It’s been a passion of mine since I was 7 or 8. A friend of my father’s always had these VHS tapes with a compilation of playoff games and the Super Bowl. I don’t know, somehow I was very early effected by the black and silver so I became an Oakland Raiders fan, they also won the Super Bowl in the year I was born and the quarterback on that season was Kenny Stabler, so that made me a Raider fan. The internet helps, for European football fans there are lots of platforms to watch and stay informed about American football. I have NFL game pass to watch all the games, so I get to watch every Raiders game, no matter when it is. It’s a 9 hour difference for West Coast games, but I don’t care. I went to see them in New York in November that was a great experience. I saw them once before in Candlestick Park in San Francisco, when they played the 49ers. I had on field passes then, that was very nice. We got in touch with someone at the Raiders headquarters, had a very nice conversation for over an hour, (got to) visit the facility. He gave us his number so I called him 2 hours before game time, he met us at the gate and gave my girlfriend and I field passes so we were like little children in a candy store."
What concerns you most about the world that we live in today?
"Actually that people don’t care for it too much or care for each other. I think the world would be a much nicer place and easier if people would not envy each other and take more into account that they are not alone in this world. I talk to non-metal heads quite often and they ask me because I am in a quite high position in my company why I have become a metal head? It’s quite easy- it’s very real music, real emotions, written and performed by people with feelings, performed in front of real audiences that feed off the energy. It’s a very loyal kind of music and the audience, they get aggressive but in the same breath they pick each other up off the ground. It’s all about letting emotions out but not trying to harm anybody else and that’s exactly the way the world should be going. I think metal is very often put in a bad light, if people would start to see the mentality of fans in this world they would probably learn very valuable lessons for their whole lives. When I talk to people that’s what I say- don’t judge it by the cover, open the book and read a few pages which is the metal community. They realize they aren’t so crazy or violent, they start to embrace what is going on in that movement. Everybody should start with themselves, if the majority of people would do that this would be a big step forward. Have respect even if you have a different opinion that is very important. Look upon others as you would want to be looked upon."
What are the plans for Days of Loss in 2014 and beyond?
"Our booking agency is looking at shows in the entire country of Austria as well as the neighboring countries of the Czech Republic, Germany, and I want to go back to my home country of Belgium and show them I am still alive and playing. We are planning to play some festivals, we have some of them confirmed, and we are looking into a couple of tours that we got offers for. We want to aim for the right audience, it doesn’t have the best effect of course if we go with an extreme black metal band or something that is not what we stand for. There will be a tour sometime this year. We are ready to play a lot of shows. We got a bass player because in the past we were a four piece with Ben Pauswek playing bass and doing vocals. He wanted to focus more on stage and put more melody/ feelings into the songs. We are looking to write songs for the new record, and it could be a bit different. Alex is going to involve everyone more into the songwriting process- this could be surprising and have interesting results."